Society photographer Slim Aarons might’ve been most active in the middle of the last century, but his work has proved so timeless that it regularly reappears on social media platforms today. Slim had a knack for portraying the jet set at their most glamorous, and for making every locale he visited look like the most magical place on earth. After serving in World War II as a photographer for Yank magazine, and experiencing the ravages of war firsthand, he famously vowed to spend the rest of his life photographing “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.”
Aarons was partial to places by the sea, including Palm Beach, often with his wife Rita and their daughter Mary Aarons in tow. PALMER recently asked Mary about her father’s love of the area and what he would make of today’s world of affluence.
What are your fondest memories of your dad in Palm Beach?
In my teens/pre-teens, I traveled to Palm Beach with my Dad (and mom) on several assignments that became mini-vacations, too. At least two were at Easter. One trip we stayed with my mom’s uncle Ben Goodale who owned a big British taxi that we drove around town in. Another time we stayed at The Breakers. We’d go to eat at Petite Marmite where my Dad would order stone crab with mustard sauce for each of us. We’d also visit the Lilly Pulitzer store where I remember buying a fabulous pair of green and purple jeans with jungle animals on them.
What do you think first attracted him to Palm Beach?
Attractive people, doing attractive things…beautiful beaches. But he also had great friends in PB. During one visit, we went to visit Patrick Lannan who was a great friend of his. I remember seeing some fabulous art at his very posh home, but what most impressed me was meeting designer Mary McFadden! Lots of the people he photographed became very good friends; Jim Kimberly, Lilly Pulitzer, Peter Pulitzer, Molly Wilmot, and others. He loved the mix of Europeans, Latin Americans and Americans, etc. He loved The Breakers; he loved the shopping and the dining. He loved the houses, the flowers (Bougainvillea), and he loved the weather! And I bet that he loved how easy it was to get to, unlike the spots he traveled to internationally!
Your father’s work typically captured a sense of perfection. Was your family life like that?
This is a tough question to answer. Our house was not fancy. It was not pristine. Country casual. We lived in a 1782 farmhouse that was very comfortable and cozy. It was filled with color and pattern, a dog and a cat. There was always music playing. We had lots of books and antiques and other things that my Dad brought home from his travels. He loved to collect: Mark Twain first editions, Baedaker Travel Guides, small antiquities, royal memorabilia and other curios/knickknacks….nothing too precious. Our lifestyle was very relaxed. We had a gorgeous, big yard that my dad took great pride in. His greatest joy was mowing the lawn on his red lawnmower tractor. My dad was very much inspired by his travels and they influenced our hodge-podge decor. We had an emerald green chair in our living room. Diana Vreeland had told him that that that was an essential core-design element for every home. He loved handmade items; my mom’s needlepointed chair and bench, crocheted American flag blankets and pillows from Amish country, big watercolor posters painted by kids that he bought at school art fairs.
Where did the name “Slim’ come from?
My dad was 6′ 4″ and skinny. “Long and lanky, built for speed,” is how he described himself. Slim was a childhood nickname from the playground that stuck!
What’s your personal favorite Slim Aarons photo?
Any photo he shot of my Mom. And, of course, the birthday party photo taken at our home in Katonah, New York, circa 1964.
What is one thing you would like the world to know about your dad that has perhaps not been written?
I do not know much about my Dad’s early years, only what I’ve learned from relatives I’ve met since he died. But I do know that he came from nothing. He was a self-made man. His service in the Army during WW2 gave him entree to a world filled with fabulous opportunities. He was a creative man, devoted to me and my mom and to his home in Katonah. He had friends all over the world. HIs education came from travels, books, museums, the theater, conversations — not from schools or universities. He spoke many languages, but never took any language classes. He had a fabulous sense of humor, a great smile and loved jokes. Provenance was hugely important to him; the lengthy history and interesting stories behind the people he photographed. He worked very hard and loved nothing more than to nap in his hammock after mowing the lawn. He loved junk food and soda; fancy foods were not his thing. He loved well made, simple and practical timeless clothes and home furnishings.
Who were some of the many interesting people you met with your dad?
Joan Fontaine, Roman Polanski, Nixon (and family), Carmen Dell’Orefice, Walter Cronkite, the Royal Family of Lichtenstein, Mark Birley, Leyland Hayward, Jean Howard (my godmother), Gjon Mili (my godfather), John Chancellor, Sirio Maccioni, Jock Elliot, Buzz Wyeth, and so many more! Lots of photographers!
Life has changed so much since the 1960’s. If your father could see the world of affluence today, what would he think?
Hmmm…I’m not sure he’d like it. He was not a fan of flash, tacky or ostentatious displays of wealth. He loved the history behind successful people, companies and brands. He loved classic influences. He loved great style. He truly believed that one cannot buy style. You are born with it, you have an eye for it, and/or the landscape delivers it! He liked natural surroundings and fashion; not overly styled, coiffed, etc. He had a true sense of whimsy and liked people who didn’t try too hard. He loved people, homes, businesses that had that sense of fun/whimsy/style that comes naturally — people and places one could kick back with and have fun, tell stories, laugh, eat good food, without pretense.
Five words to best describe your father’s Palm Beach?
Colorful, sunny, historic, relaxed, and fun!